URBAN GREENS WATCH

Some places encountered on our journey through the world of urban agriculture and gardening

Dec 27

L’Aligresse

I hesitated a little before entering l’Aligresse. It was the first garden I was visiting in Paris, and did not really know how to get in touch with the gardeners. There was someone obviously working in the garden. At first, I acted like I was just passing by, but then, feeling stupid, I summoned up all my courage and asked the gardener if she could open the gate. She greeted me cheerfully, and invited me to walk around the garden.

L’aligresse has no planters, but the ground is covered with many different kind of plants. The gardener who let me in - I did not catch her name - told me that any registered user is allowed to seed anywhere, whatever kind of crop he wants. The same applies for harvesting, which means that you will not necessarily eat or collect what you seeded. To prevent the destruction of someone’s young seedling by planting your own, you are expected to label them clearly.

An American gardener planted specific kinds of American cabbage she cannot find in France, so that she can prepare them to her American friends when they come to visit. A lot of gardeners here seemed more interested in flowers than vegetables.

The gardener showing me the garden had no idea how many people were involved in the garden at the moment. “It is been a long time since our last social event” she said “but our seasonal meeting in December will allow us to see who came and who left”. “If you want to sign up” she added “you have to go to the community café, there is often someone from the garden, especially in the afternoon.”

This garden is managed by a wider community called La Commune Libre d’Aligre, who also manages a community café. They seem to be very active at seeding any kind of social life in the neighborhood, a little bit like the Association du Quartier Saint Bernard near Le Jardin Nomade.

As I was going around in the garden with my cheerful host, she offered me to collect some seeds for my balcony. “You have planters ?” she asked “Then, just take some seeds and try !” She also offered me a couple of fresh branches of lilac she had just cut down. “Put them in a pot filled with loam, and water them regularly, soon you will have a small tree !”

I left the garden with four different kinds of seeds - and without knowing what are going to produce two of them - as well as my branches of lilac, convinced that I should visit many more of these gardens. And come back here with some seeds they don’t have yet.

L’Aligresse is managed by la Commune Libre d’Aligre.


Dec 26

Cité Industrielle

There was only one drawback about sharing the onion soup proposed by Le Jardin Nomade : missing the kiwi gathering at La Cité Industrielle, happening at the same time.

La Cité Industrielle used to host craftsmen workshops feeding the famous furniture retail stores located in rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine. Now, it is a quiet and beautiful paved street, where inhabitants are closely in contact with each other. They created a collective around ten years ago, through which they managed, for instance, to close the street to non-residential car traffic, allowing kids and plants to freely invade the street.

This same collective invested the last small piece of wasteland remaining along the street, and turned it into a garden. They saved the only sunny place available for the gardeners, and installed a table and a pair of chairs.

In addition to usual garden crops, such as tomatoes, they planted two trees : a kiwi tree, and a fig tree - two kind of trees I was not really expecting to bump into in Paris. Thierry, one of the active gardeners, tells me that they had to partially cut down the kiwi tree, as it was growing quickly along the street, and causing some problems on the neighboring façades.

The garden was threatened a couple of months ago, because the organ managing the city buildings and terrains wanted to sell the - high-value - piece of land. Fortunately, the mayor of the 11th district interceded to save the garden, and it is now the latest - and 67th - to be included in the “Main Verte” network of Parisians collective gardens.  For sanitary reasons, the city built up planters to avoid contamination from the soil in edible crops. They also destroyed the wall protecting the garden from the street and replaced it by a fence, so that more light could get in.

Fifteen gardeners have the key to access the garden, although only three to five are truly active members, according to Thierry. Right now, he is not advertising the garden very much, as fifteen gardeners in such a small place is already quite a lot. However, everyone is always welcome to help, or just visit the garden, in accordance with the “Main Verte” manifesto.

As we speak, some neighbors come out of their houses and pass by. Thierry greets them all, and reminds them of the kiwi gathering session planned for the following day. The coincidence of the onion soup and the upcycling event in Saint-Ouen prevented me for joining them. However, I asked some news to Thierry by e-mail. They collected 20 kg of kiwis, which proved to have poor taste. “The birds did not ate them, this is not a good sign”, Thierry writes. I am ready to bet that the gladness of sharing an afternoon together and getting to know better the neighboors offsetted the bad taste of the kiwis.


Dec 19

Le Jardin Nomade

After Barcelona, let’s move to Paris.

Besides working at Sony CSL during the week, I spend at least one afternoon per weekend to visit some of the 67 community gardens blooming inside the very heart of Paris - they are many more if you count those in the suburbs. My goal is to manage to visit the 67 of them before I leave Paris at the end of May. Until my arrival three weeks ago, I managed to visit ten gardens and meet some active members of four of them. Still a long way to go…

Well, enough statistics. On Saturday December 8th, I was scootering around the 11th district and stopped at the gate of Le Jardin Nomade. This garden was still quite beautiful, although Autumn is not the most exciting season for gardening. I was quite disappointed to see that the person supposed to open the garden was not there, but my disappointment was short. Indeed, a collective soup was announced on the information board for the next day.

As requested, I came around noon on Sunday with a pair of onions and a pot of cream. Some people were already assembled around the table to prepare the soup. I was warmly greeted, and I joined the onion cutting team, asking my bench neighbor about the garden.

Around fifty gardeners are involved in Le Jardin Nomade. They have been assigned small lots to share by groups of two or three gardeners, except for a large “collective” lot in the middle, shared by ten gardeners.

This garden, which started around ten years ago, was the very first to join the “Main Verte” network, which federates the community garden initatives in Paris. It started on a piece of land which should have hosted a public library. As the team planned to be forced to move after some time, they called the place “Le Jardin Nomade” - the Nomadic Garden. However, there were some geological problems, and the site was declared unable to host a building. That’s why the garden is still standing there today.

Many neighbors came up for sharing the soup : children from the neighborhood, with or without their parents, a Chinese familiy living nearby, a couple of students involved in teaching support in the neighboring school… Some people passing by were insistently invited to join. A history professor from the neighboring high school arrived with a bottle of wine, and the discussion around the table switched to the history of the neighborhood. A long-lasting inhabitant started painting us a word picture of the streets thirty years ago. In the middle of his description, a woman brought a full dish of Maghreb pastries, and everyone cheered. The children, who were preparing some grilled chestnuts and running around, came back as fast as they could, and the discussion moved to another topic.

After sharing a piece of cake, I had to leave - to some upcycling event, more on this later - but I will definitely come back to share the Spring soup with the team. Or maybe do some gardening ? This does not seem to be the most valuable aspect of the garden, after all.

(Here is the official website of the Association du Quartier Saint Bernard in charge of the garden - amongst many other activites.)


Dec 18

Tota Coca Vi

To close this four-articles session around Barcelona, let’s leave the field and move to the shop. Well, a special kind of shop.

After several delicious tapas dishes in Barri Gotic, we met Patricia not in a regular shop, but in a place shared together with other politically and socially engaged local community groups. On the ground, vegetable boxes were aligned between a large bookshelf and flyers promoting permaculture.

Thursday is the weekly distribution day of the consumer cooperative Tota Coca Vi. What is a consumer cooperative ? Well, there are many diverse types of consumer cooperatives, and the topic is way beyond the scope of this article. Let’s take the organizational structure of Tota Coca Vi as an illustration.

Tota Coca Vi has thirty members, all consumers, and does not wish to grow further than this. In fact, adopting every decision unanimously can already be difficult when you’re thirty…

Actually, the thirty consumers of Tota Coca Vi decide everything themselves. They self-assembled to buy together vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and cheese, and they decide collectively where, what, how much and to whom they buy their products. Of course, the objective is to buy directly to local trustfull producers, whose practices respect both the environment and the eventual workers helping them within their farm.

Every member is part of one or more work groups, dealing for instance with accounting, product selection, relation with producers or logistics. The specialized work group does the preliminary work and informs the other members during general meetings so that they can collectively take a decision.

Every Thursday, all the members come to the same place to pick up the box with their food for the week. They meet, chat, and informally discuss some issues they may have with the cooperative management or the task they have been assigned.

Tota coca vi is far from being the only example of consumer cooperative within Barcelona. La Repera groups all the cooperatives on one website and we can see that there are tens - even hundreds - of them in the city.

Growing food locally within the city or its peripheral area is one thing. However, acting on the whole value chain ensures that producers benefit from fair buying policies, and consumers from quality products and a perfect vision on the whole processing of the food they buy.


Dec 17

Q Valldaura

Q Valldaura is more of a peri-urban than an urban green. After taking the metro for half an hour from Barcelonetta, we had to take a cab for another fifteen minutes. Barcelona was disappearing behind the mist below our feet, as we were driving towards on the Collserola road, winding through the forest towards Can Valldaura.

Just below this old house, dozens of volunteers were working hard to cut down trees and remove bushes from a large field. Amongst them was Tomas Diez, founder and director of Fablab Barcelona. He introduced us to Nuria Díaz and Ana Martinez, respectively Project Director, and Programs Director of the Q Valldaura project. Ana guided us through the site, and explained us everything about Q Valldaura.

This very ambitious and exicting project aims at setting up the very first self-sufficiency research center in Europe. Within the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonya, a small group of researchers developed the initiative and bought a large domain - 130 ha - in the Collserola Natural Park. The idea is to install fourty persons in this domain, and make them self-sustainable in food, energy and manufactured products.

Therefore, three research programs corresponding to these three objectives will be conducted in the domain.

Concerning energy, all the renewables will be represented - solar, hydro, wind, biomass.

Regarding food, 8 ha of plantations will be made, part of them following the principles of permaculture, and some livestock will be grown

And finally, regarding production processes, a Green Fab Lab initiative will take place on site, making the best out of byproducts of natural and human activity taking place in the domain.

A master program in self-sufficiency will be launch by IAAC on site in autumn 2013. The students will both live and study on site.

This project has been partly funded by the Spanish Ministry of Industry, and partly through bank loans. The team is actually looking for other sponsors, and will launch soon a crowdsourcing campaign.

We are impatient to see the first research projects start, and will carefully follow the evolution of this hopeful project.

The official page of the Q Valldaura project can be found here.


Dec 14

L’Hort del Circ

image

On Saturday November 24th, we left Barcelona for Tarragona, a smaller city south, at the seaside. After a pleasant one-hour train ride, we met Hernanni from Re:farm the City on a nice small square, in the middle of the farmer’s market.

Re:Farm the City is an open-hardware project proposing small electro-mechanical system designs for urban agriculture and gardening, made from easy purchasable components or parts taken from waste electro-domestic appliances. They largely disseminated their know-how through numerous workshops around the world.

After discussing our respective projects, Hernanni brought us to the garden initiative he is currently leading with Martin in the city center of Tarragona. This initiative, called l’Hort del Circ, is taking place on a wasteland offered by the city on the ruins of what used to be the circ of this previous Roman capital.

image

As the soil is heavily polluted, they built aboveground planters filled with humus. These structures is that they are exclusively made of waste materials. A remarkable example of upcycling !

Recycling complements upcycling in the approach driven at l’Hort del Circ. As there is no direct access to water in the garden, plants are partially watered by water collected from neighboring air-conditionning appliances. In order to fill their planters, Martin and Hernanni contacted neighboring restaurants and collected their food waste to produce compost.

image

As many other urban gardens, l’Hort del Circ has to fight against cats, that come and dig holes in the planters, that’s why you can see grids protecting the planters. Moreover, although they went personnaly to meet everyone in the neighborhood with a social worker from the city, they had to collect some waste thrown in the garden by some disrispectful neighbors… Hopefully, some were also delighted to see such an initiative taking shape in the wasteland, and came to help them set up the garden.

Amongst other projects, Hernanni and Martin also plan to install a (peri-)urban food exchange place in Tarragona’s bus station, thereby providing workers leaving the city with an easy way to buy fresh and healthy food from local producers on their way home.

Here, a short video showing one of the innovative designs developed at l’Hort del Circ.

image


El Forat de la Vergonya

image

During our last work session in Barcelona, on November 22nd, we were invited by Patricia, one of our collaborators at UB, to visit El Forat de la Vergonya.

This urban garden is the symbol of a fight opposing the people living in the neighborhood with Barcelona City Council. Some buildings used to stand there, but they were destroyed, initially to build a parking lot, as stated in the plan for Barcelona’s city center rehabilitation. However, the people living in the neighbourhood, who had not been consulted, did not agree with this project. They started a determined fight against it, calling the place “el Horat de la Vergonya” - the Hole of Shame.

After several years of negociations and sometimes violent demonstrations - some of the demonstrators were arrested and put in jail - they obtained the right to grow a garden on the ground, with the support of the city.

This support is not necessarily seen positively by some of the inhabitants, as they fear that the city will limit the extent to which they can freely use the space and manage it by themselves.

The garden is managed collectively, and open to anyone. People bring their organic waste their to produce compost. The plants and vegetables grown there are collected and cooked to offer free collective meals in the square to the people living in the neighbourhood and tourists or other citizens passing by.

This blog article gives more details on the story of the fight.